Archive for the ‘slot canyons’ Tag

Narrow   21 comments

A rare selfie in one of the narrow canyons of Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

Time for a themed post: Narrow.  It’s this week’s WPC travel theme, so check out all the other entries.


I’ll start out close to home: Oregon’s Oneonta Gorge.  Nowadays it is quite famous, but I recall a time when only locals knew about it.  In the warmer months hordes of people hike up the short narrows, wading through the cool water to escape the heat.  In just a half-mile or less your progress is halted by a tall waterfall, where you can climb up a short way and jump off into the pool below.  So refreshing!

Green Oneonta Gorge, Oregon

Green Oneonta Gorge, Oregon

The narrows at Oneonta Gorge, full of water during the heavy rains of early Spring.

The narrows at Oneonta Gorge, full of water during the heavy rains of early Spring.

My pictures of Oneonta, however, were all captured in the worst weather I could manage, normally winter or early spring.  The canyon is at its greenest and the mossy walls drip with tiny waterfalls.  At these times it is dangerous to go further than the log jam.  The water is deep and swift and believe me, you wouldn’t want to be swept under the logs.  They would be pulling your body out later.

These logs testify to the power of Oneonta Creek when it floods during heavy rains.

These logs testify to the power of Oneonta Creek when it floods during heavy rains.

Wading through the icy water of Oneonta Creek during a winter storm.



While most of the canyons in this amazing place are not the ultra-narrow slots common to the Colorado Plateau, the park does boast a plethora of narrow canyons to explore.  One of the most famous is Titus Canyon.  Most times you can drive this canyon.  You leave the park on the east side and then re-enter it by descending Titus, passing a ghost town along the way.  There are other canyons near Titus that represent great hiking destinations.  Just hike north from the parking lot at the mouth of Titus Canyon.

You can drive down one of Death Valley's largest canyons, Titus.

You can drive down one of Death Valley’s largest canyons, Titus.

For a canyon hike in Death Valley, the one I most often recommend is Marble Canyon.  Access it by driving the dirt road from Stovepipe Wells, passable in a 2-wheel drive car (but check at the ranger station).  Walking up-canyon, you soon reach the narrows, where canyon walls reach hundreds of feet into the sky.  On a hot day try pressing your whole body against the grey limestone canyon walls.  Definitely a cooling experience!  By continuing up-canyon you eventually come to the beautiful marble that it’s named for.  Most of the way you are passing through limestone, stacks and stacks of it piled into layers at the bottom of the sea hundreds of millions of years ago.

Marble Canyon, Death Valley National Park, California.


Spreading across southern Utah, northern Arizona and part of Colorado is an enormous feature called the Colorado Plateau.  It is an uplifted landscape characterised by naked sandstone bedrock.  Known throughout the world for its iconic scenery, the plateau is dissected by countless canyons of all description.

The heart of the Colorado Plateau is incised by the meandering San Juan River, Utah.

The heart of the Colorado Plateau is incised by the meandering San Juan River, Utah.

The Grand Canyon is of course the biggest, but many are so narrow that you have to squeeze yourself through.  These are the famous narrow gorges called slot canyons.  They formed because, during the plateau’s uplift (at the same time as the Rocky Mountains rose), fractures developed much like a rising loaf of bread.  It is along these fractures that the slots have been eroded by a combination of freeze-thaw action and flowing water.

One of the biggest concentrations of slot canyons lies in Zion National Park.  Many of these are accessible to any adventurous hiker – for example the two most popular hikes: the Narrows and the Subway.  But some others require specialized equipment.  Being a popular national park, there are plenty of outfitters who will guide you safely through the technical slots.  If you’ve never done any canyoneering before, let me tell you: it’s a blast!

Zion Canyon from Angel's Rest.  The famous Narrows of the Virgin River are at the head of the canyon in the background.

Zion Canyon from Angel’s Rest. The famous Narrows of the Virgin River are at the head of the canyon in the background.

If you want to hike the Subway, I recommend either getting a permit way ahead of time or doing it off-season.  Permits are required April through October, so November is a perfect time to do it.  It’s not a short hike but anybody in good shape and with some experience should have no problem.

The Subway in Zion National Park, Utah.

The Subway in Zion National Park, Utah.

Yet it’s easy to get a feel for slot canyons without investing a lot of time.  Simply drive up to East Zion (beyond the tunnels), park at a likely spot and set off up one of the canyons, turning around at your whim (or when your way is blocked).  This is a great way to explore the park.

A side-canyon in East Zion, Utah.

To the east of Zion is another wonderland of slots: the Escalante country.  A drive down Hole in the Rock Road near the town of Escalante brings you to numerous hikes into the typically narrow tributary canyons of the Escalante River.  You don’t have to brave that long washboard road, however.  Get a good map and explore the numerous canyons accessible from Highway 12.

There is such a thing as a slot that is too narrow:  southern Utah.

There is such a thing as a slot that is too narrow: southern Utah.

Nearby Bryce Canyon, while not known for slot canyons, nevertheless has an amazing hike you should do if you visit.  It drops below the rim and wanders among the hoodoos (rock pinnacles) that make the park famous.  It’s like a maze of narrow passages, including one named Wall Street (image below).

Aptly-named Wall Street in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Aptly-named Wall Street in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Capitol Reef National Park also has some amazing narrow canyon hikes.  One I can recommend hiking is the strangely-named Muley Twist Canyon.  Drive the Burr Trail Road (an adventure in itself) and near its summit you can hike either up- or down-canyon, exploring Muley Twist to your heart’s content.  A shorter canyon hike at Capitol Reef is Grand Wash, located at the end of the scenic drive (turn off at the Visitor Center).

The Wave is a sculpted stretch of sandstone in southern Utah.

The Wave is a sculpted stretch of sandstone in southern Utah.

Continuing east across the plateau you’ll find more fun canyons to explore in the Moab area, including Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  You could spend your whole life doing nothing but hiking canyons on the Colorado Plateau and never finish with them.  There are just so many.  It’s a true wonderland.  But be smart when you go canyon hiking.  Take the ten essentials plus a hiking partner (or at least let someone know where you’re going and when to expect your return).

A slot in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

A slot in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Squeezing through a slot canyon.

Squeezing through a slot canyon.

Thanks for looking!

Grand Staircase IV: Ode to My Playground   2 comments

A close-up view of sandstone strata in the slickrock country of southern Utah, very near the location called “the wave”.

I have to say goodbye, for now, to my playground the Grand Staircase.  Hopefully I can visit on this trip my other favorite playground of the southwest, Death Valley.  Before I go, an ode to this beautiful and forbidding land. 

When I was 12 years old my family took all of us to Colorado to visit my uncle in the Air Force. It was my first time west, and I loved it. We visited several areas outside Colorado Springs, including Pike’s Peak, Cripple Creek, and Garden of the Gods. I remember just going ape clambering over and playing on the rocks, sliding down steep gullies, and generally making my mom crazy with worry.

Calf Creek flows thinly over the sandstone near its confluence with the Escalante River in Utah.


My horizons had expanded forever. My beloved woodsy park at home had suddenly become small. I saw that even in adulthood I would play like this, because there was such a thing in the world as adult-sized playgrounds: big mountains and big canyons! Maybe I have a hardwired penchant for this kind of fun.

All of this is to explain why I believe that Grand Staircase/Escalante is like one giant playground. Every time I stop along the roadside to take a few pictures, there is a very real chance that hours will pass before I get back to the van. Often I will have only traveled a mile or less down a canyon, walking much more than that, shooting loads of pictures, and losing track of time. It’s definitely my kind of playground.

Dramatic striations (called desert varnish) mark the sheer walls of a shady rock alcove near the Escalante River of southern Utah. A pond remains frozen in early Spring.

The whole region, including the bordering national parks, is a wonderland of slickrock escarpments, sandy washes, forested plateaus, and (famously) slot canyons. A slot is a very narrow section of a canyon. Canyon walls are near vertical and only a matter of feet to yards apart. In some of the more narrow spots you literally have to squeeze your body sideways to get through.

Banded sandstone appears to flow at “the wave”, a location in southern Utah now famous among photographers.

Tips for slot canyon hiking

  • Figure on a much slower pace than regular trail hiking. Even on a non-technical canyon route, you won’t do much more than 1 mile an hour (perhaps much less).
  • Get some local knowledge of the route, specifically whether it is a technical slot and where it turns technical.
  • Wear your most streamlined backpack, and put anything not safe for water in a dry sack if the slot is wet.
  • Often you will come up on a dropoff into a pool of water, depth unknown. To jump in or not to jump in…don’t until you know how deep it is.
  • On the bright side, there is often a way around dropoffs.  Look and scout. A rope, gear for fixing anchors, and knowledge of how to use it will allow you to stay in the canyon bottom more, and actually save you time over scrambling around.
  • Most of the slots in the Escalante country are dry for much of the year, but watch out in Spring or in wet years.  Neoprene socks will keep your feet warm.  For slots with swimming involved, consider a neoprene suit.  The water can be pretty cold even in hot weather.
  • Never travel a slot when the weather is too threatening. Get out quick when you see the water rising or it turns from clear to muddy. If you hear a roar upcanyon, put on your spiderman suit quick! Seriously, climb up as high as you can if you hear a roar. Even a couple feet more height can save your life.

    Pine Creek flows through the forests of Box-Death Hollow wilderness in southern Utah.


I will very likely come back here, maybe next Spring! I want to bring my truck next time. My van does not like washboard roads much at all, and there is so much to see of Hole in the Rock Road.  Hope you enjoyed the photos.  Remember that clicking them takes you to my website, where purchase is easy as pie.  No illegal downloading please.  These versions are too small for much use anyhow. 

The quiet and idyllic ranch land beneath Boulder Mountain in southern Utah basks in late afternoon light.

The Grand Staircase I   Leave a comment

The canyons of the Escalante in southern Utah wait for the first storm of the winter to arrive.

The Grand Staircase is part of the Colorado Plateau and lies mostly in southern Utah but creeps over into northern Arizona as well.  It is the defining geographic and geologic feature of the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.  Charles Keyes, one of the early geologists to study this remote region was the first to use the term Grand Staircase.  He was describing the series of stepped cliffs separated by broad terraces that extend from the Grand Canyon’s north rim northward to the high Paunsaugunt and Kaiparowits Plateaus.  The cliffs are colorful and spectacular features, cut as they are by scenic canyons and running across some of the last terrain in the U.S. to be mapped.

The Vermilion Cliffs in southern Utah are just as beautiful at night as they are during daylight hours. Here near Kanab, UT they are illuminated by a partial moon, not so bright as to interfere with the stars, including the Big Dipper standing on end.

The southernmost (and oldest) step of the Staircase is called the Chocolate Cliffs.  These are the most subtle of the formations, best viewed from the south when dropping off the Kaibab Plateau in Grand Canyon National Park.  On a clear day in fact, the highway that climbs from Fredonia, Arizona to Jacob Lake, Arizona is a great place from which to view most or all of the Grand Staircase.  From here you are looking up the Staircase.  Another great viewpoint, this time looking down the staircase, is Rainbow Point at the far (south) end of the Bryce Canyon road. The rock layers of the Grand Canyon, which actually represent another (very large) step to the south, are all older than those that make up the Grand Staircase.

An old tree lives the second part of its life, as a snag, in an Escalante River tributary canyon.

The next step to the north, just beyond the Chocolate Cliffs, is the Vermilion Cliffs.  These red and pink layers are very prominent and beautiful.  They’re visible in an almost continuous band from near Lake Powell all the way west to the town of Kanab, Utah.  The next step to the north is the White Cliffs.  Made mostly of the Navajo Sandstone, an ancient sea of sand dunes, these are visible clearly from several places.  Look up to the east from Mount Carmel , which is the turnoff to Zion N.P. from Hwy. 89.

The year’s first snowfall and a cold morning makes staying in the sleeping bag seem like a great idea.

The next step to the north is the Grey Cliffs.  These more subtle cliffs can be viewed most easily from the unpaved roads that traverse the center of the Monument.  Some Bryce Canyon viewpoints will provide a view as well.  The last step, made of the youngest rocks, is the Pink Cliffs.  The fantastic rock formations of Bryce Canyon are the most obvious exposure of these cliffs.  They are also visible from Hwy. 12 as it passes through Red Canyon.

The year’s first snowfall decorates pinyon pine cones in Utah’s red-rock country.

In Kanab, Utah, you can visit one of the National Monument’s visitor centers that will give you a great overview of the geology of the Grand Staircase.  An enormous diagram of the cliffs covers one whole wall, and it details all of the geologic formations.  There are examples of the rocks there so you can recognize them once you are out in the field.  More on the geology in my next post.

This is the only National Monument that is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and they mostly do a decent job.  Here at the visitor center you can get information on the Coyote Buttes area.  Coyote Buttes North and South are limited entry areas in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.  They lie to the east, between Kanab and Page, AZ.   The “Wave”, which is famous for its smooth and wave-like sandstone is in Coyote Buttes South.  The Wave (image below) requires you to enter a lottery for one of the 10 permits issued each day.  You can also reserve a place well ahead of time using the internet.

The wave is a formation of sculpted sandstone in the Coyote Buttes North area of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument


Sunset at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah highlights the vibrant shades of the park’s sculpted rock formations.

One more Page: Antelope Canyon and Night Balloons   2 comments

An Arizona slot canyon catches a tumbleweed.

Hot air balloons are illuminated at night during the Page, Arizona Balloon Regatta.

I stayed one more day and night in Page, Arizona.  I am so glad I did!  I broke down and did the tourist thing at Antelope Canyon.  While this time of year sees the sun only peeking into the upper parts of this 150-foot deep slot canyon, it is still a great place to photograph.  Yes it is one of the most over-photographed places in the American Southwest, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit this incredible natural wonder if you find yourself in the neighborhood.

A beam of light penetrates Antelope Canyon in Arizona.

Your best bet if you have wheels is to drive the short distance out to the Navajo Tribal Park, where you will pay $6 for entry, then $25 for a tour of the canyon.  You can also book a somewhat more expensive trip direct from Page.  You can’t miss the signs in town.  If you go during mid-day, you will pay more ($40), since that is when the sun during summer shines directly into the canyon, and it is more crowded.  So make the tour at 10 a.m., or after 2 p.m.  If you really want that sunbeam onto the canyon floor shot, go in mid-April or later.  April is perfect, since it is a bit less crowded (and cooler) than high summer.

Traveling through an Arizona slot canyon in black and white.

In Arizona near Lake Powell, a small alcove in the Navajo Sandstone catches a small sand dune.

You will board the back of a truck rigged with benches and bounce along a sand track for 4 or 5 miles to the canyon’s lower entrance.  You only tour the lower 1/4 mile or so of the slot, but this is enough for the hour+  tour, believe me!  Although there are plenty of people in the canyon, it is just wide enough to allow you to pass.  People are pretty good about not getting in your shot, though you will need to be a bit resourceful in this regard.  I pointed my camera up for the most part, so people could pass under my shot.

Your exposures will be long, and flash is not a great idea (most guides do not allow them), so definitely bring a good tripod.  A wide angle lens is necessary, but also bring a longer lens, say a fast 50 mm. and maybe a 70-200 as well.  You will see compositions that require some isolation from surrounding darker or cluttered areas.  Get low, get high, include a lot of the wall, shoot straight down the slot, shoot straight up.  Do anything for variety.  Remember, this place has been shot to death.

You can take a tour specifically focused on photography, but then you might have a guide telling you where and how to shoot.  Unless you’re a beginner, be careful what type of guide you hire.  I noticed while I was there that the photo guides definitely have favorite spots to shoot, and were mostly telling not suggesting where to shoot.  This further compounds the problem of too many similar shots of the place being out there on the web.

There are two other sections of the canyon you can explore.  One is the lower canyon, just across the road from the upper’s staging area.  It costs $20 to hike this, and it is more of an independent hike than the upper slot.  It is also much wider and less of a slot canyon than the upper.  There is also a higher upper portion of the slot canyon, above the more popular section.  My guide told me it is possible to book a tour to explore this section, which is way less crowded but still a nice narrow, sculpted slot canyon.

After this I took a neat hike, just to explore some of the slickrock country visible from the highway.  I love doing this.  Nobody else ever thinks about just parking and taking off cross-country.  I believe I might have been on Navajo land in part, so I was risking an encounter to some degree.  Scrambling around, “friction hiking” the slickrock alcoves was very cool (image left).  But something happened to my heel, and now I have symptoms of the dreaded plantar fasciitis.

Later that evening, the weekend’s main event took place.  On the Saturday night of the Balloon Regatta weekend in Page, all the balloonists inflate their balloons along the main street in Page, and fire up their burners.  Instead of launching, the balloon pilots illuminate their balloons for everyone.  There is food, games and activities for kids, a beer garden, and a general atmosphere of festivity in the air.  I was pretty happy with the pictures I got of the glowing balloons.  It was a bit like shooting fireworks, where you open the shutter for a fairly long spell during the action and hope for good shots.  Since the pilots use walkie talkies to synchronize their burners, it’s easy to tell when to fire the shutter.  I set my exposure off of one of the glowing balloons, and then left the camera on manual and zoomed back out for the shots.

The Page Balloon Regatta culminates in a panoply of glowing balloons.

It was a great long weekend in Page, on the shores of Lake Powell.  Warm weather, fun people, and red rock canyon country all around you.  What more could you ask for?  It was on to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for me after that, and that is the subject of my next post.

The sun peeks into the narrow confines of Antelope Canyon, Arizona.

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